Rally against sexual harassment @NCBS Bagalore

wp-1465880241389.jpgPhoto credit: Priyanka Runwal

Some 150 Students, staff, and some faculty member of NCBS Bangalore recently held a silent rally against sexual harassment in the  neighbourhood of  NCBS Bangalore. The aim of the rally were:

  • Safe public spaces. Freedom for everyone to walk around at any time in day and night.
  • Encourage people to report incidents when they are happening and to take a security escort to do so.
  • Awareness that such incidents are happening around us and will not be tolerated.
  • Involve local community. Get more and more people involved so that they support victims when witnessing such incidents.
  • Encourage people to use public spaces so that anti-social elements do not monopolize them.
  • Popularise measures that are already in place at NCBS.
  • Inform civil authorities. Maintenance of public spaces such as improving street lighting and increased police patrol in sensitive areas.
  • Continue to work on a safer neighbourhood:
  • Organize martial arts courses at NCBS that are open to public.
  • Remove garbage in the streets to make this place look well maintained.

We covered some neighbourhood of NCBS Bangalore where most of the incidents were reported. We also took signatures to be handed over to local police to increase patrolling. But most importantly, we also get the local community to get involved. As it is well know, the harasser is usually a person who does not have deep roots in the community, not easy to track or identify, often does not commit his acts in own neighbourhood.

If this helps more people to speak up and report, intervene and stop harassment when they are happening in our neighbourhood, I’ll call it a success. In any case, one aim was to instil confidence and reduce the fear among the people that we stand with them and ready to help them should the need arise. They are not alone. Our sympathies are with them. This won’t be much, but it will be something.

NOTE on media coverage:

Various newspaper covered the rally. There were various distortions in coverage. Rally did not march to police station. We only did it in the neighbourhood of the campus. Also there is no case of sexual harassment on the campus. People who are involved in these incidents were not drunk either etc. etc.. The Hindu did least distorted reporting on the issue; and managed to get the basic point of being a “awareness rally” to the foreground.

Admission interviews at NCBS Bangalore

Every year, last week of May, NCBS conducts interviews for admission to our Ph.D. and Integrated Ph.D. program. If you are invited to the interview, this post is for you. This is not an official post, I am writing it as a student who went through it.

You should report at the campus by 7:45 am (I know this is too early and cruel). To reach the campus, you can use auto/cab. There is shuttle service between IISc and NCBS but it won’t be of any help in early morning. Food is not a problem for you or your parents. If you can’t report at campus by early morning, do contact people given in your brochure/information sheet/email. 

There will be volunteers to help you throughout the interview process. You’ll get to know them during your orientation. Catch any of them, ask anything; they will sort most of your problems.

Interview process consists of two stages for both Ph.D. and Int. Ph.D. candidates. Results are usually announced post dinner at the end of last interview day. Try to be calm during the process, it helps your chances.

Interviews will be in your area of expertise. You really don’t have to prepare for it. People are interested how you think about scientific problems and not how much you know (which is always useful). The interviewers will not have access to your marks-sheets etc, you won’t be judged according to grades or your performance in written test. They will start afresh; it all based on interview from now on.

If you are from different background such as physics, computer science of engineering, they will ask you general question which is easy to understand (why plants have flowers/fruits?). For goodness sake, don’t just say random things if you don’t know the answer.  Do not throw any jargon at them in guise of an answer. Try to answer logically and in simple terms — from the first principle . Or ask them to ask another question if you feel clueless.

Course Review: Basic Neurobiology/Neuroscience at NCBS Bangalore

Basic Neurobiology course offered at NCBS Bangalore consists of 4 modules of around 6 lectures each, plus a couple of labs on electrical models of cells. Each lecture is around 90 minutes. Usually there are three lectures a week but sometimes two lectures and a tutorial or lab-session is also organized. The TA support is rather limited in this course and quality depends mainly on the motivation of TA.

Module 1 is taken by Upinder Bhalla. It is mainly about cellular biophysics, and computation. Major topics covered were: neurons as electrical entities, passive properties and cable theory, active properties and Hodgkin-Huxley equations. And tutorial sessions have Hodgin-Huxley experiments conducted in-silico using MOOSE simulator; and a electrical-circuit based demonstration of cable-theory/passive properties. This module consists of many assignment and quizzes :-).

Module 2 is taken by Shona Chatterjee. It mainly about synaptic transmission in invertebrate and vertebrate nervous systems; snaptic plasticity in the mammalian brain; and basic concepts in neuroanatomy. The lab session has demonstration of Golgi-staining or mouse-brain. There is usually one quiz and no assignments. Quiz may have any sort of tangentially related questions: such as root-word of “Syanpse” in Latin, and name of X who discovered Y.

Module 3 belongs to Vatsala Thirumalai. She taught small circuits. CPG were central to her lectures. The effects of neuromodulators on rhythmic activities of these small circuits were discussed. This module have assignments.
Sanjay Sane took module 4. It was about comparative neurobiology and ethology. He discussed nervous system — their forms and functions — across animal kingdom.  Sensing and neuronal circuitry involved in sensing was one of the core themes. This module have some assigned reading and paper presentation: no pop-quizzes or assignments though he believes in taking written exams.

Course review: Randomness in Biology

Randomness in Biology” is a graduate level course offered at NCBS Bangalore by Dr. Mukund Thattai.

This course follows — in spirit — Handbook of Stochastic Methods: For Physics, Chemistry, and the Natural Sciences by Gardiner and Stochastic Processes in Physics and Chemistry by Van Kampen. It offers a bag full of stochastic tools to biologists for modeling and describing experiments and hypothesis. The course is not intended to be mathematically rigorous but remains very faithful to the spirit of rigor. The instructor strikes the balance between rigor and intuition really well.

The crux of course focused on different types of Random Walk: discrete-time discrete-step, discrete-time continuous-step, and continuous-time and continuous steps; and on Master equations which can describe almost all of the chemistry. Stochastic differential equations along with Fokker-Plank equations were introduced. We did simulations using Langevin equations and Gillespie algorithms.

The assignments were pleasant to solve and they required good knowledge of some language: matlab, mathematica, python etc.

The instructor is full of energy and knows his subject very well. His capacity to switch gears and find connections is breathtaking. He quickly grasps questions asked, and explain the fundamentals very well. Moreover — what is more important — he is not at all lazy when it comes to work out derivations and equations. It is just pleasing to see him in action.

The classroom Safeda, named after a mango variety, deserves as much praise as the instructor for its spacious white-board. To sum up, it is a great course for anyone with graduate level of mathematics. For an engineer who had little exposure to stochastic processes, it was a joyful and enlightening experience, which the instructor did not ruin by setting up unreasonably stupid and routine examinations.

A trip to Antergange

One of my lab-mates hikes to psychologically anneal himself. May be hiking is some sort of spiritual experience for him as doing assignments is for me. He planned for a night hiking around Antergange. Oliver told me that we’d pass through some villages during trekking, I enthusiastically joined them. Also I like the company of a girl who promised to joined us. We started from NCBS Bagalore around 4pm and reached Majestic bus station around 5pm and took a bus to Kolar from Terminal 3, platform 8. Kolar is Rs. 62 (80 Km, 2 hours) away from Majestic bus station; I didn’t worry about the direction.

We got down at Kolar bus station. I feel most comfortable in small towns and villages. It feels like me being home among my homies. There is certain sturdiness in their life and raw humanity in their manners which I appreciate a lot. I miss it sometimes in my academic life which is mostly lived in cities. Every time, I pass though a village — even mine — somehow I can’t stop thinking about M. N. Srinivas’s legendary monograph, “The remembered village“. I marvel and envy at the clarity of his vision. Its remarkable how clearly some people can see through “others”?

Just outside the Kolar bus-station, there is a small hotel. One can get vegetarian food there. We had dinner. More than food, I liked the enthusiasm of owner or manager of that place: he can be found in kitchen and serving area. He told me that they make excellent Paratha and Chapathi and they are supporting BJP (no, they are supporting Modi) this year. We had no problem caused by their food during trekking.

Oliver, being a German, attracted local attentions in restaurant. Some people wanted to know where he is from. They started inquiring about our native places enthusiastically. When they got to know we are going to Antergange, they advised us not to go uphill in night; its not safe. Apparently it is safe from humans but not from animals. A cheetah was spotted by someone on the hill. You need not take them seriously, they just love cautioning strangers.

Many people (especially from North India) don’t feel safe telling strangers where they are going. Northern part of this county suffers from a lack of trust among people compared to South. I wondered what my group was thinking about me when I was telling them freely where we are planning to go during the night (with 3 girls in group)!

It’s a 3-4 kilometers walk from Kolar bus station to top of hill. First you will encounter a pucca road. There are 2-3 villages on the way, and trust me, don’t take dogs in villages too lightly. “Barking dogs seldom bite” may not be as true as you might like it to be. Get a guy in front with a stick and one at back with a stick. Others can walk in the middle. The dog who is most likely to bite you  will appear from behind silently. Its not hard to spot them if you are willing to look beyond fellow humans. Unless a dog comes really near you, ignore it.

Once you reach the temple after crossing two villages on the road, you can fill your bottles. The water looks pure (both physically and theoretically). It did not cause anything bad to us. And there was a white puppy who can also accompany you if show him enough affection. Perhaps he is an orphan. He is very afraid of grown-up dogs and will run away if you pass through any village (which he did).

If you want to make fire on the hill, collect wood from the village or from their fields. They usually don’t have crops in this month (late March, early April) so you can collect leftovers from their fields too. Don’t cut wood at the top of hill, it wouldn’t burn.

Sleeping can be tricky and uncomfortable if you are not carrying warm clothes. Pack a good jacket and heavy pants. In night, it gets cold, blanket would be a great idea. We had tents (thanks to Oliver) but I slept outside it and didn’t feel much cold in jacket and blanket. Between me and rock was a thin chaddar with Ben10 all over it which my ex-girlfriend bought for me. In the morning, I got to know that I snore.

There are boulders on the top and people often claim that they form cave. They are not caves as I define them but let’s not worry about the pedantic. In night, finding them is not easy. Jumping from boulder to boulder can be tricky but fun nonetheless. The fall is steep and dangerous. If you get intense psychological attraction towards free jumping over boulders (as I do), control!

If you are ahead of your group and sweating a lot, take off you pants and feel the wind in your legs and butt. You can leave the undies on but it wouldn’t hurt taking them off too. Nothing feels better than this. And you might even have a non-philosophical theory why so many women are fond of mini-skirts!

Many people love to see sun-rise. I care very little for sun-rise, Oliver was even less enthusiastic about it. Nonetheless if you are up there and awake, why miss it? It was definitely not as beautiful as it gets in my village in late winter when you can see shining dew on the leaves of small wheat plant — I even wrote a poem about it once.

I was standing there looking at sun with Avankita who was sensitive enough to recall a poem and recite few lines from it. Gimli from “Lords of the ring” had this to say,  “You have chosen the Evening, but my love is given to the Morning. And my heart forebodes that soon it will pass away for ever.” Her voice lacked her usual firmness and certitude and her face was even more unpredictable than usual. May be because she had to share these deeply felt words with an acquaintance. I liked that she could share something with me.

I love evenings; they promise me either home or calmness and solitude. While coming back, I wondered if I can ever recite a poem by looking at sky. I could think of the last stanza of a Mahadevi Verma’s “Main neer bhari dukh is badli”. But in front of whom I can recite it?

While coming back in the morning, the first village you’ll encounter has bus services. Bus to this village from Kolar leaves around 7am and takes about 15-20 minutes to reach there. So you should get there between 7.15am and 8am. The bus stop is just outside the village near a Masjid or Dargah. One very friendly and religiously musical old man in that Dargah reminded me of Mehmood the kitemaker (a short story by Ruskin Bond). Ruskin has a way of describing the surface of his characters. One can easily notice them. I wonder if one can discover characters painted by R. K. Narayanan and Premchand just by a simple gaze?